The Pressupositions of Science

What are the presuppositions of science? What does it assume from the get-go?

Of course in practice scinece is a human endeavour that is pursued by a host of scientists, each bringing their own presuppositions and assumptions (often – unknowingly) to the table. At the descriptive level, therefore, science won’t have any clear list of presuppositions as-such.

But at the philosophical level, we can wonder what science needs to get done, what needs to be assumed in order to even attempt to do science.

Gauch has some answers. He maintains that all that is needed is the acceptence of “common sense” thinking, like “pedestrians get hit by cars”, and the implicit assumptions behind them. And that what this boils down to is the belief that reality is Ordered and Comprehensible – that there is an Order that underlies the variety in reality, and that we can Comprehend this order and therefore reality by the use of reason. This fundamental assumption can be broken down into more detailed ones in various ways, but it is better to just keep the two-concept bottom line: Science pressuposed a Comprehensible Order.

I think Gauch is mistaken on both counts. Science does not presuppose that the world is orderly nor that it is comprehensible. Instead, science requires a specific list of “transcendental” assumptions, and science in practice also uses a supplementary list vague “theories”, broad hypothesis that seem (scientifically) to work. Two of these are that the world is ordered and comprehensible.

To ascertain the presuppositions of science, we first need to etablish what it is. I shall define it as “The attempt, by limited semi-rational agents, to infer the content of reality”.

Given this definition, there are a number of things that must be true in the world for it to be possible to attempt to conduct science, and to acheive scientific progress. These are:

1. Realism: There must be a reality containing all those agents that are attempting to do science. Science further assumes that this reality is independent of the beliefs of these agents about it (with the trivial exception that it contains those agents with those beliefs). This is an expediency, but is not strictly needed.

2. Rationality: Science assumes that the rational examination of data can infer the truth, or at least get close to it. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be thinking of rationality in Baysian terms – ‘rationality’ is taken to be the application of Bayesian inference.

3. Time Flow: Rationality (at least as understood above) operates in time. It is therefore requires that time flows for the agents, that they would be embedded in a stream of time.

I emphasize that this is not the same as assuming that all of reality is within time, or that time “flows” in some metaphysical sense, or that it changes in the same way at evey place, or so on. All that is being assumed is how time relates to each agent – each agent must function within (its own?) time.

4. Input Channel: The application of rationality by each agent (‘scientist’) requires that it have an input channel, receiving more and more inputs as time progresses.

5. Reliable Memory: As processing (for finite agents) takes time, one automatically needs a memory to process even a single experience. One also needs a memory, however, to analyze patterns in time. And to receive information with content exceeding the input channel’s bandwidth. A perfect memory isn’t required – just a sufficiently good one.

6. Reliable Inputs: The input one gets should reflect some part of reality, or else it cannot be used to analyze it. Similar types of events should lead to similar experiences.

This does not presume that the sense-impressions we have are accurate reflections of reality. It doesn’t even persume spatiality. The things one’s input corresponds to at different times define what the agent’s “environment” is – the environment are those things that the input “represents”.

7. Reliable Rationality: The agent’s reasoning should approach that or an ideal rational agent to a degree that will allow him to pursue the rational analysis of his inputs.

These are, as far as I can see, all the things that need to be in-place for agents to start doing science. There are two more things, however, that are required for science to work well.

I. Order. Science works to the extent that patterns exist. It works best in a reality that has uniform simple patterns, so that inferrences from part of it and in the past would hold true in different parts and in the future, and that these patterns would be easy to discover. In other words, science works best if there are simple universal uniform laws of nature.

But science does not presuppose such uniformity. Rationality requires belief in the simplest, most uniform construction that fits the data so far – but this is not that same as presupposing that such a structure exists. Contra Gauch, instead of presupposing Order science hypothesizes it.

II. Causality. Experiments definitely do require causality, as do lots of scientific models and explanations. But causality is merely one type of pattern within reality, one kind of structure to be inferred. One could in principle infer that there are no causal structures except those presupposed above. That would be extremely odd, surely, but that’s a different matter.

If it wasn’t for this leeway, science would never have discovered quantum mechanics. In QM science inferred non-causal patterns in existence.

To this list one can add numerous secondary assumptions and heuristics, like the Copernican principle, General Covariance, or so on. But these are all secondary “theories” and ideas, not the fundamental core of science. In my opinion.

So, by my reckoning science does not presume that the world is orderly. It hopes that it is, and will succeed to the extent that it is, but that is not the same thing. Likewise, science does not presume the world is comprehensible. It hopes that it is, and will succeed to the extent that it is easy to comprehend the world, but that is not the same thing.

Science similarly doesn’t assume that causality holds, or that time flows, or any such metaphysical principles – except to the extent that its presuppositions assume the limited applicability of such concepts to the agent’s own mental processing and interactions with the environment. The belief that such concepts extend to beyond these presumptions is (at most) a rational belief inferred by science, not presupposed by it.


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